Lots of people still whip out their Montblanc and write paper checks to settle their bills, no matter that their clients, creditors, banks and financial advisors would like them to do it cheaply, quickly, sensibly – electronically. Lots of them too march into their favorite stores and pick up their choice of shirt or shoes, bread or book, razor or refrigerator, no matter that they can have a wider selection and better prices if they bought these online.
It has taken us quite a bit of time to give up using paper maps and turn to MapQuest or Google Map for road directions. It helps that few shops have paper maps to sell. Stationary phones still adorn some living rooms, but mostly as a memento since few people now transact much except on their mobile phones. It helps the switch that one can’t receive photos, music or instant text on the landline. We hardly run to our television at a fixed hour to hear the news or watch a movie, for news is accessible any time and movies are on demand.
But a bigger change is coming down the pike.
I remember the thrill when I first bought a car, though it was little better than a jalopy. A little of that thrill returned when I later bought a brand-new car and even later when I splurged on a luxury sedan. Vestiges of it haven’t survived the dubious joy of navigating city traffic. I am impressed when I see others lovingly polish their cars. I seldom clean my car; when it gets dusty, I leave it in the rain.
I know many others are not like me. Faulkner said that Americans love their cars more than their wives and children. Some show exceptional attachment to their vehicles. They extol its virtues and run down rival models. They nurse it in a well-appointed garage and haul it to mechanics for regular check-ups. Like a favored pet, they take it periodically to a specialty shop for a beauty treatment.
There is sad news for them. The car as a precious private possession is dead as the dodo. The pandemic has delayed its departure, but its fate is sealed.
In the Chinese metropolis, Shenzhen, you can already have the driverless car service called AutoX – I find the name prophetic when I read it as AutoEx. You will soon have the same service in the more complex city of Beijing, when Baidu, the Chinese search giant, launches its robo-taxis after successful runs in Changzhou and Changsha.
Americans can have the same no-driver ride-hailing service in Phoenix, Arizona, in the area now called Waymo One, where Google’s parent company Alphabet is trying out its driverless fleet. General Motors, the car giant, won’t be left behind and has acquired two technology companies that will equip all its cars with sensors and help launch the electric car Bolt as a driverless taxi. Amazon, not content with delivering dishes and dresses to our doors, is getting to bring out the fully-autonomous, electric, four-seater, cutely called Zoox.
Meanwhile, big technology groups such as Intel, Luminar and Velodyne have also jumped into the fray. A robotic car needs cameras to guide its path and avoid other objects, but it also needs Lidar technology – light detection and ranging – that uses laser light pulses to measure distance and ‘see’ surroundings. Also, it will need computer prowess to digest a vast amount of data on the road surely and speedily. Numberless billions have already been invested. While Covid19 slowed progress for a while, it also underlined the urgency of a car without an unknown driver.
Two truths define the inescapable logic of autonomous cars. A million and a half people die every year from car accidents and 94 percent of these are from human error. We have the technology to do far better than that. The second reality is that a car is the most underutilized asset in the world, used on an average of two hours a day.
Except for the over-rich, who have too much money and want to waste it, and the under-informed, who don’t know and don’t want to know better, there will soon be no reason for anyone to own a car. You can soon go anywhere you want with a car that will obey you and take you there safely and swiftly – and not hold up your capital and occupy useless space in your garage.
The private car is a goner. But who cares if you can neck with your dear friend on a long, cozy taxi ride, in a self-driving car that has no driver to peer and frown!